Episode Four Extra: Victorian Ghostbusters

For the weeks in between Episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.

In this week’s episode, Where Darkness Plays, we touched briefly on the supernatural theories of the eminent Sir William Barrett.  Sir William passed away in 1925, roughly forty years previously, however, he had been a founding member of a fascinating collective known as the Society for Psychical Research.

Counting among its early members such luminary figures as Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Ruskin, the society had been established in an attempt to legitimize the investigation of paranormal phenomena. 

Rather than dismiss reports of strange occurrences that might not tally with conventional wisdom, the society made it their mission to approach each case impartially, adopting a strict scientific method with each investigation. You might say they were nothing less than the original Ghostbusters.

The Society for Psychical Research had been established in response to a peculiar craze that was sweeping the Western world, a craze that had its origins in a small wooden house in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York.

In 1848, two sisters named Kate and Margaret Fox claimed to have made contact with the spirit of a dead man. The sisters alleged that the spirit had communicated with them through a series of knocks and bangs.  In short, they professed to have made contact with a Poltergeist and in so doing inadvertently created a movement that would come to be known as Spiritualism. 

As news of the Fox sisters’ incredible claims spread, it wasn’t long before everybody from The Romanovs to Queen Victoria were conducting séances in an attempt to replicate the apparent communications with the dead.

Inevitably as the movement’s popularity increased so did the number of bogus mediums, psychics and clairvoyants ever ready to take advantage of a gullible public.  For the Society of Psychical Research, it was these charlatans that posed the biggest threat to what they believed was an otherwise perfectly legitimate area of study. 

The group was formally established in 1882, however it wasn’t until 1886 that the society established itself with the publication of what is now considered the first classic text of parapsychology. Titled Phantasms of the Living, the book was the work of three Oxbridge educated scholars: the psychologist Edmund Gurney, the poet Frederic Myers and, author and founder of the Fabien Society, Frank Podmore.

The fascinating book, which can be found online, provides an exhaustive study of the paranormal, taking in witchcraft, dreams, hallucinations, telepathy and of course the poltergeist phenomena.

In conclusion the authors believed that rather then describing the workings of the spirits of the dead, all paranormal phenomena was merely the result of Extra Sensory Perception.

Or as Frederic Myers, notes, 'Instead of describing a ghost as a dead person permitted to communicate with the living, let us define it as a manifestation of persistent personal energy'

The trio, who also went by the brilliantly titled Committee of Apparitions and Haunted Houses soon caught the attention of controversial newspaper editor William Thomas Stead. 

Stead, a pioneer of investigative journalism is perhaps most well known for a series of articles published in the Pall Mall Gazette exposing the dark underbelly of Victorian society and its proclivity for child prostitution.

The articles, collectively titled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, not only helped to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16, but are also considered to mark the birth, for better or worse, of something we now take completely for granted, the power of the media to influence public opinion. 

As a commentator on popular culture, Stead had grown increasingly interested in the spiritualist movement, and so it was to him that the Society turned for their next extraordinary venture. 

In what remains one of the most ambitious investigations into the paranormal ever undertaken, the trio, along with the help of the Society’s Secretary Alice Johnson and Eleanor Sedgwick, set about compiling the data fro what would be come known as The Census of Hallucinations.

As an aside, as was regrettably standard for the time, and in many cases still is, the contribution of women was often criminally undervalued.  But this was certainly not the case with the Society for Psychical Research Eleanor Sedgwick, in particular, was a very highly regarded member of the society and would later be elected its first female president in 1908.

After 6 years the Census of Hallucinations was finally completed and the results published by William Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette.  What the data revealed was nothing short of astounding.

The team focused their investigation on instances of telepathy, in particular telepathy that had taken the form of a waking hallucinations. After collating the responses of over 17,000 participants, they found that as many as 10% of respondents had experienced some form of hallucination.

After further cross checking and verification, the highly educated team concluded that of the 1700 reports that remained, at least 2% claimed to have experienced a hallucination that revealed information they couldn’t possibly have been aware of before.   

Furthermore, many of the people who claimed such experiences had recently suffered a profound moment of crisis, suggesting that such occurrences may make the mind more receptive to such an experience.

Although of course the validity of the research is wide open for debate, it remains a fascinating document.

The Society for Psychical Research continues its work today, continuing to employ the rigours of science in its tireless investigation of paranormal phenomena.

For the original Committee of Apparitions and Haunted Houses, their fates however were somewhat more tragic:

Edmund Gurney had staked much of his reputation on his investigations into the existence of telepathy. In the spring of 1888 he discovered his assistant George Albert Smith had in fact faked many of his successful results.  Broken hearted by the deception, Gurney is believed to have taken his own life in the June of that year. 

In 1907 Frank Podmore, was forced to resign from a senior position in the Post Office due in large part to the revelation that he was gay.  Shunned by his family and friends, Podmore later drowned in the town of Malvern in 1910. Neither his family nor any members of the Society, are believed to have attended his funeral.

For William Thomas Stead, his fate was sealed as one of the 2224 passengers of the maiden voyage of the Titanic, sinking beneath the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean on the morning of April 15th 1912.

As for Frederic Myers, he died a peaceful death in Rome in 1901. Or so was thought.

Shortly before his death, the Classicist Myers had informed his friends of his intentions to prove the existence of life after death by contacting them from beyond the grave. One such friend was the world-renowned physicist Sir Oliver Lodge. Not long after Myers passed away, Sir Oliver was contacted by a medium. She had a message for him, she said. It’s from a man called Frederic Myers…

What ensued over the course of several years was a series of messages supposedly relayed to mediums all over the world, none of whom had previously met. The obscure highbrow allusions and snippets of Latin verse contained in the messages meant little on their own but when pieced together were found to form a cohesive set of communications. Known as the Cross Correspondences, it is considered by many a compelling ultimate proof of life after death. 


© Richard MacLean Smith





1.    Wilson, C. (2009), Poltergeist: A Classic Study in Destructive Haunting, US: Llewellyn Publications

2.    Podmore, F., Myers, F. W. H. & Gurney, E. (1886), Phantasms of the Living, http://www.esalen.org/ctr-archive/book-phantasms.html

3.    The Census of Hallucinations, The Parapsychology Foundation, http://www.pflyceum.org/153.html

4.    The Society For Psychical Research, http://www.spr.ac.uk/